Millennialist Beliefs and the American Civil War

Millennialist Beliefs and the American Civil War May 20, 2023


American Progress by John Gast (Image Courtesy of


Before we can turn to the Civil War-era writers mentioned in the last entry, it is first necessary to understand how deeply engrained apocalyptic beliefs were in American culture at the time. Most Americans are probably familiar with the famous Union marching song, the Battle Hymn of the Republic, as it has remained an occasional patriotic standard ever since the Civil War. What most are not aware of is how much the song draws upon apocalyptic themes and imagery. The famous first lines of the poem draw directly upon the Book of Revelation:

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;

He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored,

He hath loosed the fateful lightnings of His terrible swift sword,

His truth is marching on. (ll.1-4)

The first line suggests Christ’s return as “the Son of Man coming in the clouds with great power and glory” (Mark 13:21) foretold in the gospels and dramatized so powerfully in Revelation 19. God’s sword is also a recurring symbol of Revelation, with it memorably being described as proceeding from Christ’s mouth both at Revelation 1:16 and during his return in the clouds at Revelation 19:15; Christ even calls himself “the One who has the sharp, two-edged sword” (Rev. 2:12) as he dictates his message to the church of Pergamum. But even more striking is the line about God “trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.” This directly refers to one of the most gruesome scenes in Revelation:

Another angel came out of the heavenly sanctuary. And he also had a sharp sickle. Then from the altar came yet another, the angel who has authority over fire, and he called aloud to the one with the sharp sickle: ‘Put in your sharp sickle, and gather in earth’s grape harvest, for its clusters are ripe.’ So the angel swept over the earth with his sickle and gathered in its grapes, and threw them into the great winepress of God’s wrath. The winepress was trodden outside the city, and for a distance of two hundred miles blood flowed from the press to the height of horses’ bridles. (Rev. 14:17-20)

This scene, the trampling of sinners in God’s winepress is, as noted, one of the bloodier in what is a very bloody book. However, it is also one of the lesser-known events in Revelation’s apocalyptic narrative, so the fact that the Battle Hymn references it in its opening lines suggests how much the marching song is imbued with the spirit and imagery of Christian apocalyptic. This apocalyptic sensibility continues throughout. God’s truth becomes “His day” (l. 8) in the second verse; “the day of the Lord” had been a common shorthand for the apocalyptic moment and the end-times since the Hebrew prophets. The fourth verse speaks of God “sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment seat” (l.14)—a clear reference to the Last Judgment—and the often-omitted sixth verse promises that “the world shall be his footstool and the soul of Time his slave” (l. 23), imagining a future world directly under God’s personal rule. The Battle Hymn of the Republic from beginning to end proclaims that the soldiers marching to the tune are not just fighting to preserve the Union but are taking part in the apocalyptic events that will bring about the end of history and Christ’s millennial reign.

This is not generally how we are accustomed to think of the events of the Civil War today. It would be easy to assume, then, that the Battle Hymn represents an isolated and eccentric interpretation of those events as they were going on. But this is not so. Julia Ward Howe penned the song as a more suitably solemn and reverential rewrite of the earlier marching song John Brown’s Body. That song, which imagined the martyred anti-slavery crusader rising in spirit to take revenge on the Confederacy, contained the same sense of righteous purpose and justified fury of the later Battle Hymn. It also, sometimes, contained the same millennialist themes; a version of the song penned by William W. Patton contained the line, “John Brown was John the Baptist of the Christ we are to see” (l. 13). Thus, the connection of the Union cause to the Second Coming of Christ was already made by the time of Howe’s fateful rewrite.

In truth, it would have been nothing new for Americans on both sides of the conflict to hear their cause connected with the birth of God’s kingdom on earth. Non-Americans who roll their eyes at claims of “American exceptionalism” today would be quite alarmed to know the heights it reached in earlier centuries. For, ever since British settlers had begun colonizing what would become the future United States, it had been a popular belief amongst Americans that they had a special role to play in the God’s plan for the end of history. As George C. Rable explains in God’s Almost Chosen Peoples, the common belief was that “Americans were people chosen by God to carry out his mission in the world. The creation and growth of the American republic … signified the Lord’s direct intervention in human history” (Rable 3). Furthermore, their newborn nation was especially chosen by God to make the world ready for the Millennium of His personal rule: “many of the devout … expected the reign of a triumphant Christ to begin soon (if it had not already begun) on earth — and specifically in America … Americans tied messianic hope to national destiny” (3). Thus, by the time of the Civil War, the mainstream culture of thought and opinion in the United States had fully embraced an ideology that might be called “American nationalist millennialism.”

As to how exactly America was to make the world ready for Christ’s Second Coming, there were, of course, disagreements. But by far the predominant view was a sunny, optimistic one that ultimately originated—through many confused channels across a span of some seven-hundred years—from Joachim of Fiore. In this view, rather than increasing degeneracy and turmoil preceding the end-times as had been traditionally assumed, the world was imagined as gradually improving over time, to where the perfection of the millennial age would be the natural outgrowth of current trends. As Jason Philips observes in Looming Civil War, “Some Americans anticipated how human progress would fashion the future and prepare the world for Christ’s return at the end of the millennium. These postmillennialists championed reform movements to accelerate history and fulfill the prophecy” (Philips 5-6). This viewpoint, combined with a belief in the divinely-chosen destiny of the American nation, led to the widely-held opinion that the influence of the United States would spread across the world, introducing principles of freedom and liberty to all lands as the final movement in the history of human progress. This in turn would lay the groundwork for Christ’s imminent reappearance and the beginning of His personal rule.

This sentiment had long legs. It has, despite being shorn of its most overt millenarian claims, remained at the heart of how the United States tends to see itself and the world ever since. But in the nineteenth century, those millenarian associations were the heart of the message. They were so central to Americans’ understanding of their country that even the greatest existential crisis the United States has ever faced, the Civil War, failed to dampen them. Even as the war threatened to dissolve the American nation entirely, both the Union and the Confederacy laid claim to the mantle of God’s chosen nation and the millennial ideas tied up with it. As Rable puts it, borrowing a phrase made famous by Ernest Lee Tuveson, “rebel and Yankee alike saw themselves as part of a righteous, redeemer nation” (Rable 4). Both sides clung to their millennialist hopes through the war’s darkest hours; Rable notes that these hopes wavered “[i]n the war’s first years not at all, and only rarely in the war’s later years, even as Confederates watched their dream of separate nationhood collapse” (3). The belief in American nationalist millennialism was simply too entrenched in the national consciousness. No matter the bleakness of events, Americans inevitably managed to fit them into the millennial framework of America’s divine destiny, Thus, an Ohioan minister, quoted by Rable, surely spoke for many when he proclaimed that the conflict was “one of the prominent ways by which the Lord will introduce the Millennial Day” (qtd. in 40).

It was this belief that helped to carry the Union to victory. For while it was a shared sentiment on both sides of the battlefield, the Union certainly made the more effective and lasting use of it, as the examples of John Brown’s Body and the Battle Hymn of the Republic demonstrate. The Union did so with good reason; it was, after all, much harder to imagine the American nation spreading its light to the world if that nation itself was broken apart. Still, not every supporter of the Union cause was able to maintain the abiding and unwavering faith in the nation’s destiny over four long years of war. Sallie Bridges, an aspiring poet with connections to the Union war effort, had attempted to enter the public debate in support of the Union with her poem “The Question of the Day in 1860.” However, her conviction in America’s ability to ring in the millennial day wavered over the course of war. These doubts would ultimately lead her to look for a new, and far stranger, source of millennial hope. We shall consider her startling and remarkable millennialist answer to the nation’s problems in our next entry.



Finding the full text of the Battle Hymn of the Republic is difficult. The University of Toronto’s Representative Poetry Online contains both Howe’s initial manuscript and final published versions, both of which have been used for the text quoted above. Received versions of the text often seem to be a composite of the various forms it took over Howe’s lifetime. Professor Douglas O. Linder of the University of Missouri, Kansas City has a page containing both Patton’s lyrics to John Brown’s Body and those to the Battle Hymn of the Republic as a part of his Famous Trials website.

The two scholarly works cited above are Jason Philips’s Looming Civil War: How Nineteenth-Century Americans Imagined the Future (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018) and George C. Rable’s God’s Almost Chosen Peoples: A Religious History of the American Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010).

Despite the fact that it is largely unknown beyond specialists in the earlier periods of American history, millennialist nationalism in the United States has been the subject of a considerable amount of scholarly literature. Ernest Lee Tuveson’s Redeemer Nation: The Idea of America’s Millennial Role (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968) is, while now outdated in many respects, one of the landmarks works of the field, as is Sacvan Bercovitch’s The American Jeremiad (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1978).

The version of Revelation used here is the one found in The Oxford Study Bible, edited by M. Jack Suggs, Katharin Doob Sakenfeld, and James R. Meuller (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992, pp. 1556-1575).

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